Book Review of The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

Peter H. Wilson. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-674-03634-5. Maps. Battle plans. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Index. Pp. xxii, 997. $35.00.

Originally published in The Journal of Military History 74 (July 2010): 915-16.  The review has been updated.

Writing a history of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) presents the historian with many problems because of the complexity of the conflict.  Major stumbling blocks to the study of the war include the need to work with at least fourteen languages, study thousands of published works, and toil in numerous archives to produce a study that would cover all aspects of a conflict that involved much of Europe.  As such, there are few full-length general accounts of the Thirty Years War. Most of the published literature is meant for specialists, and many of the brief overviews are geared for students.

Dr Peter H. Wilson, Professor of History at the University of Hull, and a leading historian of Early Modern Germany, has taken up this task, and given us the first general account of the conflict since Geoffrey Parker’s The Thirty Years War (1984).  Wilson’s previous studies include War, State and Society in Württemberg, 1677-1793 (1995), German Armies: War and German Society, 1648-1806 (1998), The Holy Roman Empire, 1495-1806 (1999), From Reich to Revolution: German History 1558-1806 (2004), as well as a recently published document  collection The Thirty Years War: A Sourcebook (2010).

Wilson’s massive detailed account, based on the latest research, examines the political, economic, social, and military history of the era with respect to the origins, conduct, and outcome of the most destructive war of the seventeenth century.  The author sees the Thirty Years War as a conflict in Central Europe, and this region is his main focus. But, the study addresses all of the major and minor players, including Spain, France, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, Denmark, England, Transylvania, Savoy, and the Ottoman Empire, that had an impact on the origins or course of the conflict. The author strives to show the distinctiveness of the “German War” in respect to other related conflicts, such as the Hispano-Dutch, Polish-Swedish, and Mantuan wars, during the era.

Wilson begins by examining the origins of the conflict in the Holy Roman Empire in relation to the general European situation in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. To do so, he introduces key issues and participants inside and outside the Empire. The weakened state of the Austrian Habsburgs after the Long Turkish War (1593-1606), the roles of the Protestant Union and Catholic League in German politics, and legal issues such as the Jülich-Cleves Crises are fully examined.  Readers of this journal will appreciate the influence of the Dutch Revolt (1568-1609) and Long Turkish War on military leaders with regard to strategy, military technology, fighting tactics, and logistics in the Thirty Years War.

The author devotes nearly five hundred pages to the conduct of the Thirty Years War. He fully describes the politics, diplomacy, and military action of the many participants involved in the war from the Bohemian Revolt to the Peace of Westphalia.  He argues throughout his study that the Thirty Years War was a series of secular conflicts with religious overtones. The Bohemian Revolt of 1618 was a coup carried out by a minority of anxious militant Protestants against Habsburg rule for political reasons (pp. 269-70). Emperor Ferdinand II drew the support of Maximilian of Bavaria, the Catholic League, and Spain against Frederick V of the Palatinate and the Bohemian rebels, not for religious motives, but to uphold the imperial constitution (p. 297). The dynastic ambitions of Christian IV of Denmark, not a religious cause, led to the Danish phase of the Thirty Years War in 1625 (p. 387). Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden intervened in German affairs for security reasons in 1630 (p.462). Protestant Sweden and Catholic France became allies against the Austrian Habsburgs for secular goals. Most studies of the Thirty Years War give limited coverage to the period after 1635. Historians tend to see this period as chaotic and extremely destructive. Wilson, however, devotes equal attention to this period of the conflict. In fact, his book is especially important for the detailed discussion of activities during the last thirteen years of the war.  He stresses that this phase of the war “wreaked havoc, but it also remained firmly controlled and directed. Operations continued to support political objectives as rulers sought to improve their negotiating positions” (p. 624).

Wilson succeeds in providing a well-written, authoritative study of the Thirty Years War. Specialists as well as general readers will gain much from this work. Military historians will enjoy his coverage of the many campaigns.  There are numerous battle plan maps. However, the study lacks an overall map of Central Europe and smaller operational maps dealing with military campaigns.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota


About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Dutch Military History, Eighty Years War (1568-1648), Europe in the 17th Century (1598-1715), Military Revolution, Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s